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Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal is worrying advocates of foster youth, who are afraid that these children could be left behind in the governor’s push to overhaul the state’s school finance system.

Under the governor’s proposed “local control funding formula,” districts would get at least 35 percent more dollars – about $2,400 per child – for educating their share of the state’s English learners, low-income children, and the approximately 42,000 school-age foster students. Districts would have to account for their use of the funds to their local community.

At the same time, current state categorical funding earmarked for foster youth programs would be “flexed,” able to be used for any educational purpose with no accountability for how it is spent by county offices of education.

Foster youth advocates say the promised 35 percent extra funding is illusory, while the threatened loss of the protection of categorical funding is real.

Funding formula negates promise of more support

Putting foster children in one of only three categories of students who warrant extra help is “a big deal,” said Jesse Hahnel, director of Foster Ed in California for the National Center for Youth Law, based in Oakland. “I would like to commend the governor for that. But his proposal is likely to have a perverse effect.”

That’s because students who fall into more than one high-needs category would not bring the districts money beyond the 35 percent. Advocates and budget officials at the state Department of Finance agree that every foster child would also qualify as low-income. Since districts won’t get extra funds to serve children in foster care, they won’t see it in their interest to identify them, Hahnel said. If a district doesn’t get any extra money to meet the accountability requirement, he asks, “why would it admit to serving a foster child?”

Foster children tend to disappear within schools because they look like everyone else and there are so few of them in each district. Add to that the fact that many of them move from home to home and from school to school, often in the middle of the school year and sometimes more than once. Districts often don’t know which of their students are in foster care, Hahnel said.

Daniel Heimpel, who advocates for foster youth on a national level, suggests if the governor wants to  support foster youth and still maintain his local control funding formula, he should allow the relatively small group of foster students (less than 1 percent of California schoolchildren) to count twice – once for being foster youth and once for being low-income. That way districts would receive 70 percent in extra funding for each student, giving them an incentive to identify their foster children, he said.

Flip side of flexibility: loss of categorical protection

The Legislature already has eliminated protection for many categorical programs, such as adult education, allowing funds formerly earmarked for adult ed to be used for any purpose. Now Brown is proposing to eliminate nearly all of the remaining categoricals, including foster care funding. Advocates for foster children foresee parallels with the way some districts have decimated adult ed and diverted the money to other purposes.

County offices of education and a handful of districts have been receiving separate state funding, some since 1981, to serve the needs of foster children, who typically have been taken from their families because of abuse or neglect. This year, the Foster Youth Services Program received slightly more than $15 million from the state. An October 2012 report that evaluated the six oldest programs showed they were producing positive results in areas such as high school completion, truancy, and expulsion rates. For example, foster youth in Mt. Diablo Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area had a 93 percent high school graduation rate in 2012, said James Wogan, who oversees child and family programs for the district. That compares to a national graduation rate for foster children of 45 percent, according to the report.

County offices develop their own programs, but they typically include academic counseling, tutoring, mentoring, vocational training, and transition services (such as ensuring students don’t lose credits when they change schools and that counseling and tutoring programs continue). They also help prepare students to live on their own after they turn 18.

If the earmarked funding for the programs is eliminated, “no one from the state will even ask counties how their foster kids are doing,” Hahnel said. “If no one is asking, then I am very skeptical that county offices will continue funding programs for foster children. It might not happen immediately. But over time, I’m 100 percent certain that programs will disappear. In the end, it is going to be a tragedy for foster children because they will lose these crucial services.”

David Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, has a different view. He said he will “absolutely continue to use those funds for foster youth,” and he believes his counterparts in other county offices will do the same. Services such as coordinating programs for foster youth, who often move from district to district, “define what county offices should be doing,” Gordon said. “One of the reasons we exist to is to serve this mobile population.”

Gordon says his office, which actively seeks grants from philanthropic organizations, spends more than it receives from the state for foster youth. One problem with categorical programs, he said, is that they “build a culture of compliance to do the minimum.”

Some advocates are concerned that other county superintendents won’t be as motivated as Gordon is. They say that moving control to the local level, where there are few foster children, diminishes their voice.

“These are disenfranchised people,” Mt. Diablo’s Wogan said. “Who would come to school board meetings and say we need these programs?”


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